In the players’ handbooks that once circulated among commedia dell’arte troupes, the wandering actors of early modern Italy used to set down inventories of the lazzi, or comic turns, that were their stock in trade. Among these routines, out of which entire performances could be constructed, was the lazzo del bastonado, or what we might call, in American showbiz tradition, the “shtick of the stick.” The theatrical scholar Mel Gordon, who has compiled and translated the old commedia handbooks, cites a concise description of this lazzo: When your audience becomes restive, you may win back their attention by whacking another actor with a good strong length of wood.
Anyone who has put on a puppet show for children will recognize the soundness of this advice. Indeed, historical researchers into the fortunes of Punch and Judy have confirmed that the use of the bastonado is especially funny when it causes a baby to fly wailing out of its mother’s arms. This observation may lead us on to consider the various infantile lazzi, which include suffocation, throttling and the beating of a child’s brains against the proscenium arch, all of which have attained a just venerability.
The mind, convulsed, grasps for such precedents when contemplating the new political comedy Team America: World Police, an animation featuring a roster of marionettes, plus two house cats and a cockroach. Prominent among this cast are puppets representing the likes of Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Janeane Garofalo and Michael Moore–people who support The Nation and its causes, and who for this good work are incinerated, decapitated, eviscerated and dynamited in effigy, with effects that are as bloody as the filmmakers, in their glee, can muster. Do I justify my helpless laughter–do I deepen my understanding–by tracing these comedic enormities to a reputable past? Or am I forgetting that tradition also endorses the practice of female circumcision, the myth of Jewish blood lust and the alcoholic yowling, at sports events, of nationalist ditties? In short, am I talking about artistic heritage or the lazzo del fascismo?
On the side of art, I note that Team America is principally the work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who could be called the “creators” of the beloved television series South Park, if God had only made the world flat. Parker and Stone’s fundamental shtick in South Park is to express lavishly rude subject matter through abjectly simple drawings and animation. This marriage of the overstated and the underachieved is also their technique in Team America. The figures are now three-dimensional, by virtue of being marionettes; the settings are clever, colorful dioramas, rather than crude backgrounds; and the budget, at a reported $30 million, is breathtaking by the standards of South Park, or for that matter a family of four in Gary, Indiana. Nevertheless, the basic joke of Team America develops from the film’s bluntness. Although the title characters are said to be an elite force of military heroes, outfitted with the most elaborate spyware and armaments, they are, most nakedly, a set of plastic figurines, which bobble at the end of visible strings and move their faces like theme park Abe Lincolns. Had Parker and Stone credited Leon Trotsky as their co-writer, they could not have come up with a more blatant visualization of the concept “imperialist puppets.”
The story, since you ask, concerns Team America’s efforts to foil a terrorist plot that threatens to be a thousand times worse than 9/11. (You do the math.) Joining the cadre as its new member is Gary, a Broadway actor who is recruited for his skill at imposture. Costumed and made up like Ariel Sharon’s ugliest nightmare, the better to infiltrate the hordes of turbaned terrorists, Gary zooms with his teammates toward the bazaar in Cairo, while the soundtrack blasts a defiantly patriotic metal-rock anthem with lyrics too obscene to print in this fuckin’ magazine.
Note who gets the bastonado at this stage. For its opening gesture, Team America thumps the very life out of George W. Bush and his supporters, translating their worldview onto the screen with brutal literal-mindedness. Them: swarthy murderers, who speak a phlegm-clotted language. Us: clean-cut, can-do winners, whose pretty heads are a little too big for our bodies and whose eyes are slightly outsized for our heads. You may also note how this physical disproportion makes the Team America figures seem childlike. Embodiments of a mentality that is both simple and insular, they treat everything outside themselves as a target to be fired at freely, while inside their own circle they think only of their tender emotions–as if the cockpits of fighter jets were so many junior high school lunchrooms, littered with semi-secret notes about who wants to go out.
Add to these traits a preoccupation with show business–that is to say, an inability to distinguish pretense from reality–and the members of Team America may be summed up as dangerous idiots. Let all Nation readers say amen, and laugh themselves silly when the puppets strip down for their sex scene. Forty years ago, the great critic Parker Tyler argued that the avant-garde film was essentially a peep show, exposing to public view those aspects of life that society, by consensus, sought to conceal. Today, by consensus, Paramount Pictures can release Team America into the malls. What was left to conceal, so that the rating could be eased from NC-17 to R, I truly cannot imagine.
But then, despite the squawks of America’s many God-botherers, our society no longer troubles itself to suppress the facts about sex, or most other subjects. Our consensus now maintains social equilibrium by the more refined method of suppressing forms of thought. Pick up a copy of USA Today–I dare you–and you will see this work done in plain sight, on the editorial page, by means of the terms “left” and “right.” No matter how preposterously ill matched, the positions that are so labeled are presented as equivalent choices: the Coke and Pepsi of a marketplace of ideas that exists nowhere but on that same newspaper page. This is “balance.”
And in a movie whose characters literally dangle from strings, “balance” turns out to be fatal. Because the members of Team America are reckless bozos of the right, Parker and Stone evidently felt obliged to invent an opposing group on the left. Enter the effective heavies–Moore, Sarandon, Robbins, Garofalo–who foolishly deny that real danger exists in the world and that real force must be used.
Of course, you will refuse to believe that I am taking this seriously. (Why would anyone think seriously about a multimillion-dollar commercial product with a political theme, marketed coast to coast just before an election?) If you are a South Park fan, you might also refuse to believe that Parker and Stone really mean to demonize something they call the “Film Actors Guild.” Surely the guys are just scoring a satiric point about the news media’s reduction of activist politics to celebrity gossip; surely the caricatures of Alec Baldwin, Sean Penn and Matt Damon are intended as further outlandish realizations of the Bush worldview. Besides, audiences can be counted on to feel some resentment of the good fortune of movie stars, and therefore won’t mind seeing them get whacked with a stick. The leaders of MoveOn.org would make much less satisfying villains.
All true–and yet if you sit through Team America rather than hear it described, you can’t mistake the filmmakers’ great pleasure in torturing the Hollywood do-gooders. You can’t overlook the vehemence with which Parker and Stone keep spitting out the acronym for “Film Actors Guild”; nor can you ignore their tilting of the balance toward the plot’s designated good guys, who are ultimately no dumber than the heroes of a Jerry Bruckheimer film and who win out just as gloriously. For people who pride themselves on being irreverent, Parker and Stone give in thoroughly to convention.
They do it with reason, of course. The conventions work; they were boffo in sixteenth-century Italy, and they’re boffo today. That’s why, if you go to see Team America, you will probably walk out happily sated with laughter and humming one of the offensive show tunes. But if you see this movie on Election Day, you might recall that the real-life leader of Team America is responsible for the deaths of more than 10,000 Iraqi civilians in a war that need not have been fought. The worst that the real Tim Robbins ever did was mess up The Cradle Will Rock.
These thoughts lead me, naturally, to Peter Davis’s masterwork, Hearts and Minds.
It is one of the great feats of filmmaking: a coolly comprehensive assessment of America’s war against Vietnam, completed while the shots were still being fired. Since the film’s first showing in 1974, and its subsequent receipt in 1975 of the Oscar for best documentary, an entire generation has grown up without being able to watch this picture on the screen. Parker and Stone belong to this generation, which never saw the realities of American power revealed in a movie house but was steeped in counterfantasies, which soon came flooding into theaters as if to wash away Davis’s achievement: First Blood, Top Gun, Missing in Action and their innumerable knockoffs.
Some subjects, America does suppress.
Fortunately, the Film Archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has spent two years restoring Hearts and Minds, and Rialto Pictures is putting the new prints into national release, starting with a run at New York’s Film Forum (through November 4). If you are of an older generation and lived through the years of the Vietnam War, you need to see this movie; only a picture this uncompromising can shake the dust off your memories and emotions. And if you are of a younger generation, you also need to see Hearts and Minds. It will shock you not only with the truths it brings to light but with the force of its truly balanced filmmaking.
Davis got all sides into the movie: American Presidents, generals and planners; Vietnamese leaders, prostitutes and peasants; French colonial officials; US veterans, from the heartbroken to the vehemently prowar; mourners; flag-wavers; coffin-makers; amputees; even a high school football team, whose coach helps set the tone for the movie by instructing his players to kill. By creating a counterpoint among these many voices, Davis composed a work that is simultaneously an exposé of the history of the war, an exploration of American martial culture and a deeply humane portrait of the victims.
In Hearts and Minds, Peter Davis managed to understand everything. Then, against convention, he forgave nothing.